Meet the Man Behind the Most Acclaimed Board Game in Years

Meet the Man Behind the Most Acclaimed Board Game in Years

Rob Daviau worked at Hasbro for 14 years on games like 'Clue' and 'Trivial Pursuit' before breaking out on his own Glixel

'Pandemic: Legacy' co-creator Rob Daviau talks influences, from 'D&D' to 'Lost'

'Pandemic: Legacy' co-creator Rob Daviau talks influences, from 'D&D' to 'Lost'

Ten years ago, Rob Daviau was working at Hasbro, the multinational toy manufacturer behind board-game mainstays like Risk and Clue. While megacorps like Hasbro certainly helped pioneer aspects of face-to-face, meatspace gaming, it's hard to imagine a less likely origin story for a designer now heralded as one of board gaming's great innovators. Back in the mid-aughts, Daviau was cranking out themed updates for classic Hasbro properties – the likes of Clue: Harry Potter Edition, Trivial Pursuit: Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars Risk. Fine enough games, but not exactly mind-blowing stuff. Then came the flash of the bulb.

As any survivor of Grandma's game nights knows, most board games aim to contain their carnage to a single game. You conquer the globe, drive your friends to bankruptcy, or eradicate the planet's most vile illness, but then it's over, and a fresh game shakes the slate clean. Daviau wondered: what if life wasn't so simple? What if Risk was more like tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, where the previous wars don't just melt away into some alternate universe, but figure prominently into the next conflict, and the one after? This spark of imagination became Risk Legacy, a wargame where a careless decision you made five games ago can prove to be your downfall – or your redemption. While the fatalistic dice rolls that define Risk remained, Daviau's take on the classic formula managed to garner much more attention than he ever anticipated. It put his name on the map in a big way.

After leaving Hasbro, Daviau teamed up with influential board game designer Matt Leacock to give the latter's beloved co-op epidemic prevention game Pandemic the Legacy treatment. And then came the real shocker: Pandemic Legacy became one of the most popular board games in the world, with influential fansite Board Game Geek naming it the best board game ever. With these considerable achievements behind him, Daviau branched out to release his first non-licensed Legacy game, SeaFall, a sprawling strategy game that puts players in control of rival nation-states aiming to conquer the uncharted seas amidst the vestiges of an ancient civilization.

Now, with the second "season" of Pandemic Legacy just around the corner, Glixel spoke with Daviau to chat about the cardboard life, his former corporate overlords, and the travails of self-employment.

In the past few years, you've transitioned from a loyal Hasbro employee to one of the most high-profile game developers in the US. How did that happen, and how do you feel about it?
Well... it feels good! It's not an industry that a lot of people can make a living at. I often say that more people can make a living as a shortstop than as a board game designer. Although, my 14 years at Hasbro actually did serve me well, because I did learn a ton about games. I think a lot of people who set out on their own just don't know how the game is made, don't know how the graphics are made, haven't worked through all their issues. For me, I guess I'm the 18-year overnight success story. But I do like some of those licensed Risk variants [that I worked on], I'll say. And I think Harry Potter Clue is a good game. I mean, hey, I always tried to make a good game when it was given to me. There are other games in my past that I'm not so enamored with.

Like what?
I don't think I ever quite cracked Trivial Pursuit. And when I did have a good idea, I was restricted from making it. I was tasked with making a number of "regular" Trivial Pursuit games. There's sort of this formula that worked like gangbusters in 1982 and totally defined the social party game genre – like, have people over, have a few drinks, play games.

That's pretty much unthinkable today.
Well, yeah, but you see the echoes of it now. If you get together at someone's house and they want to play a game. You just didn't do that before Trivial Pursuit. You played contract bridge, or poker, or some card game. Maybe if you're really fashionable you play a parlor game, like charades. But here's a game that's an alternative to that. And it was a formula that worked, but when I started working on it in 1998, it didn't seem to work anymore.

What about Clue? You mentioned that you were proud of it.
Yeah. Clue: Harry Potter Edition I think is a good take on Clue. You can die, for example, get killed in the hallways of Hogwarts. And there are wheels under the game board that turn when you roll stuff on dice, so the doors open and close, and there are secret passages that lead to other places. So you might go out a door, and want to go back in the way you came, but the wheels have turned in such a way that it's now a wall. And the secret passage that used to lead to Potions now leads to the Library or whatever.

How did it feel working within that corporate structure versus now that you're independent?
I was never a good match for corporate structure. People had judgments of me and I didn't know how to work the system. It was always an uneasy fit. But I haven't worked at another corporation, so I don't know if it's Hasbro in particular, but I suspect it's a little of both.

Part of what was good about going out on my own four years ago was the freedom to make my own decisions and my own mistakes. I've made plenty of mistakes and had plenty of successes, but I get to work as hard as I want or not as hard as I want. That's just part of my personality. I value that.

How did you originally get your job at Hasbro?
It was a job in the classifieds, believe it or not. I saw that Parker Brothers was hiring – and it was for a copywriter position, not design – but they thought I was a good fit for the design position. Even at that point, I had spent a lot of time playing games, designing games, and thinking about games, but it was such an unbelievable way of getting in. I still kind of think that it was a fluke.

How did Risk: Legacy happen within a company like Hasbro? Did your subsequent departure have anything to do with it?
I left purely because of external factors, though it was the right time to go. In fact, it was probably a few years after it was time to go, but I was and am a single dad with kids. So geographical movement to another board game company was impossible. And those jobs are really hard to get anyway. And I couldn't afford to have a couple of lean years with child care payments as a single dad. So I was in a place where I probably should have left four or five years earlier just because it wasn't a good match.

I had the idea of Risk: Legacy, but getting it through the Hasbro system was the hard part. I had to pull every political lever that I had figured out over the last 14 years, and then they decided to consolidate our corporate headquarters, and move our jobs miles away. And my then-fiancee, current wife, we both worked at Hasbro. We would have both been out of work the week we were getting married if we hadn't moved with them.

Well, obviously, they were moving everyone, but the timing just happened to work out in the worst possible way. So we had our house 90 miles away – we had an apartment and a house for a while there – and we just went back and forth as needed for a year. It was just untenable. But luckily, Risk: Legacy came out in the middle of that, and it was a great calling card to go to other companies and say "I would love to work with you."

Where did the idea of Legacy games come from?
Well, Dungeons & Dragons factors into it. The TV show Lost was at its peak when I thought of it, and that factored in significantly. When you get to an end of an episode, and things just kept changing within the season, and from season to season, and even the genre of the show, and I thought "oh, man, maybe I can do that with Risk." Just when you figure out the genre, everything shifts. Computer game tutorials where it's like, "okay, we're just going to duck a lot for five minutes." So just the concept of layering just-in-time rules and letting you practice them until the new rules emerge. I looked at Banksy's graffiti – when you're marking things and tagging things, a lot of people think you're defacing them. That shows up as stickers in Risk and Pandemic. Probably didn't help me too much, but it was nice to get Hasbro to buy me a Banksy book!

Game design is having an idea and then getting excited about it enough to enter on a journey of a lot of bad ideas that follow.

So you had this kernel of an idea – this idea of "permanence" as a starting point. How did you apply that to the familiar game structures of Pandemic and Risk?
That's just game design, right? Game design is having an idea and then getting excited about it enough to enter on a journey of a lot of bad ideas that follow. But it's a journey you go on because you believe that good idea has to survive. But this was really different in the sense that I knew that it was a very big idea. I was both more excited and more frightened by the possibility of doing this. Like, how do I do this? How do I not screw it up? What does it mean? I don't think anybody has done this – is it possible that I've managed to find this little thing that no one had thought of? I just kept poking around and asking people at Hasbro, and they just kept saying "no, I haven't heard of that." And when I saw people's reactions to permanence, it got more scary and more exciting, because they got heated. They said "ah, I don't know about all that," and I said "I'm just going to try it, and we're going to see what happens."

So, after Risk: Legacy, you start working on Seafall, this incredibly ambitious strategy game with permanence...
In retrospect, what I was trying to do with Seafall was prove to myself that I could do a complicated game. Now, I don't need to prove that to myself anymore, because I don't think it's really what I want to do, and now that I've done it, I know I can do it. I was overreacting to criticism, like "I do more than Trouble games and Operation! I don't just edit Trivial Pursuit games! I'll show you all, I'll show you something so big that your mind will bend!" And it got smaller and smaller, but it should have gotten even smaller than that. At some point, I realized that the fact that it changes in between games is what makes it big, and the base design should be small, but at that point I had been working on it for two years, so I was just kind of tired.

From a design perspective, do you think Pandemic enjoys any advantages over Risk?
Oh, certainly. It's a better game. Risk is from 1959, so it's a little bit dated, of course. And Pandemic is from the last decade. So it has a fresher approach. It's much less random – or rather, it's a different sort of random, where it's not a series of frustrating dice rolls. In Pandemic, you kinda know when an epidemic is coming soon, where you might say "oh, we got them back to back," but then you know that you won't have them for a while. It's much less deterministic – the random events aren't independent. It's a much better game, and I was working with the original designer, not trying to rehab some 50-year-old design. It's only natural that it's better.

People call Pandemic: Legacy the best board game ever made. How does that make you feel? Do you agree with that?
It feels like they must be talking to somebody behind me. When they say it to me I say "which game are we talking about?" To me, I was just sitting at my desk with Matt, and we were talking about stuff, but I immediately knew that it was going to be something big. The playtesting just went so smoothly. It wasn't that it was easy, it's that we were always making steady progress. I was telling Matt yesterday that making a game is like driving a truck in wet sand. You're just spinning and spinning and spinning, and you think you're going nowhere, and you'll look back and think, "oh, I've got five feet." And there's just mud and dirt, and by the time you get to the end, you're just exhausted. Pandemic Legacy was no different, but it felt like we went faster than usual, even though we had further to go.

Yeah, it's the highest on Board Game Geek. By that metric, it's the best game ever made. But it's more polarizing, more love-it-or-hate-it than other games. Eventually, something will come and dethrone it. I always considered myself very fortunate if I had a game even sniff anywhere near the top 100 briefly. So I never expected this, and even though I think it's been 14 months, I haven't integrated it at all yet. Like, I'll be on Board Game Geek, I'll look at something, and then I'll see the rating, and it feels great. But it's not like I founded Google, you know? I'm not retired. It's more just like, "that's cool." I should try to work that hard again.

With all these Legacy games behind you, what did you learn about their design in general that you'll carry forward with you as you work on further projects?
As I said, it went from something that I had defined as a genre to something that I have internal rules for. So, if I start a new Legacy game, I can run through a checklist – how's this going to work? What happens on a turn? How is luck determined? With a Legacy game, what's the overall arc? How many games? What happens between the games? This is great, because it allows me to then focus on making the experience better as opposed to figuring out what the experience is. I always try to challenge myself not to make just a photocopy of my previous work, to try something that hasn't been tried before. They used to take a lot longer than a regular game, but now they just take much longer. Instead of being the equivalent of five games, it's the equivalent of two or two and a half. No matter what, it's still multiple games in the box, and there's a lot more testing involved.

Seafall was the first Legacy game you designed on your own without a high-profile license. How did that affect the design process and how did that impact the way the product was marketed and sold?
It affected the development process because I was trying to do all these ridiculously hard things at once. I was trying to make a very complicated strategy game and I was trying to make the most ambitious Legacy game, and I was trying to make a game that takes two hours. I was adding exponents, not even multipliers, of difficulty. You can always go back to your former self and say "hey, why didn't you just make a really good exploration-sort of 4X game?" If I had done that and it had been successful, I would have been able to make it a Legacy game two years later. With Pandemic Legacy, the first game is basically Pandemic. With Risk, the first game is basically Risk. I'm coming in later, layering over the base mechanics. With Seafall, I was thinking the first game is whatever the base mechanics of Seafall are, when I should have spent six months making "game one," and play that and play that until everybody loves it. And then I should have built on that. I just didn't realize how foolish it was to try to run before I even knew how to crawl, or before I even had feet. That's what made it take so long, and that's why I think I ended up with some systemic issues that should have been teased out by extensive playtesting of game one.

At your GDC panel, you mentioned that the amount of persistent games in the marketplace is likely to increase dramatically in the next few years. How does that make you feel? Do you think there's a lot of consumer appetite for that, or do you think it's just the hot new thing for developers to try?
It's probably a little of both. It's probably the next hot thing, but how hot is it? How long does that "nextness" last? After two or three more games, will people have enough, or will it become its own niche or subgenre, like collectible card games? I still don't know what the right number of games is, because the game is finite. I was so deathly afraid that people would say that they didn't get their money's worth that I kept moving it up – 12 games, 15 games. And now I've had a number of people say to me, "eh, I just want six." They just want to play a game five or six times and just move onto the next one. I don't know if the economics works out with that, though, because designing a Legacy game that plays six times means people expect it to cost 25 or 30 bucks, but it's almost as much work as designing one that costs $80, and my royalties will be a third. Is that a good business model? I'm not sure, but when you're independent, it's unfortunately something that you have to consider.

The market is moving in a direction where board games with high-profile licenses – even video game licenses like Doom or Dark Souls or Bloodborne – are creating these big game that sell pretty well, and that seems to be where the guaranteed money is in the market. How do you feel about that?
I actually really like designing games based on an existing license. And I don't mean basing on an existing game engine, like with Pandemic, but with movies or books. Because, at that point, I know how the game is supposed to feel, and the fantasy that the work is trying to get you to buy into. It just makes things a lot easier. And though I'll spend the next six months bashing my head against my wall for it, if I have that core understanding, then I'm already some distance of the way there.

So you don't mind limitations?
Not at all. I had a publisher approach me after Pandemic and say, "I'll make any game you want." And all I said in response was "well, what do you want?" And they said, "I don't want to constrain you." And I just never had an idea. I would much rather have someone come up and say, "I want a card game that plays in four minutes but has 100 cards." I might realize that I won't have anything eventually, but that's at least a starting point. And I might think a game on the way, as a result. I might not be able to make a game from that license, but I'll have another idea.

Do you feel like you're living your dream? Did you always want to be an independent full-time game designer?
When I'm living in the moment and I'm running a business and I'm solving problems, I try to get perspective that this is living the dream, but a lot of it is just in the moment. Every time I think about something I did a few years ago, I think "that was really cool." I think I'm going to look back on this time in my life and think "I was living the dream," and I hope that I don't wish then that I had paid more attention and appreciated it more. I'm trying to appreciate it.

What does it take to be a full-time board game designer? Like you said, there are more shortstops than people who can pull it off.
If you turn your passion into your job, then all of the things that come with your job come with it. I don't think a lot of people expect that. Like, I talk to accountants and lawyers and file taxes, and I answer a hundred emails a day, and worry about logistics and website management. Everything you would think doesn't come with designing games for a living actually does, and you have to get used to that. There are very few game designers who make enough of a living to hire someone to do some of what you might call "drudgery." There might be two, or three. 30% of my time involves being a businessman. Maybe someday I'll be successful enough to cut that out, but for now, that's more than enough for me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.